Caste In Bone

By M. Jane Letty

1200 words/8 minute read

“All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others”

~ Animal Farm by George Orwell

This essay is from an old sociology assignment, asking the question: How do slavery, caste, and class systems of social stratification differ?

What makes all three different, also makes them the same. The common element—human rights being leveled for or against one another based on their perceived value to be treated in a fair and dignified manner. Another common and conflicting element is hatred. The master hates the slave, evident in the abuse and violation of dignity. The slave hates the master, as a response to being abused and denied freedom. In the case of what sets slavery apart from caste and class systems is the exchange of labor for profit through gain exacted through punishment based almost entirely or according to ethnicity or the power to oppress without social accountability. Although slavery existed throughout the world and history, the element of racial inequality, systemic and systematic abuses did not occur elsewhere. In Rome and Greece, the slaves accumulated were used for labor to free their people to pursue academic or political advantage as a means of self-preservation and power over adversarial countries. There was also an end, which a slave could depend upon to endure toward freedom. A cruel use of hope, since many who were used for labor were worked to death as opposed to others who would teach or tend house or pamper their owners. Early slaves were able to pay off their debts to creditors as opposed to being put to death, while criminals (murders or thieves) were enslaved to pay their debt to society. Once the debt was paid, they were set free.

In America, things were very different. That difference didn’t stop at what purpose a slave was given. It came down to a difference of skin color. For instance, the Irish slaves were not abused based solely on their Irish heritage. This is not to say the Irish slaves were not abused—they toiled as laborers and maids and suffered, greatly. However, the Irish were similar in appearance to the slave owners unlike the African or Indian or Native Americans, with their darker skin, thicker dialect, and oppositional cultures, religious beliefs and rituals. American slave owners could not easily mold them into society as they could the Irish slaves who could be mistaken for white Anglo-Saxon. As a matter of geography, the further south the slave, the worse the treatment as in the case of African slaves. Perhaps because the master paid more for a slave in New Orleans than in Kentucky, the master justified he owned more of the slave’s dignity or the sale included the slave’s freedom and human rights? Furthering this atrocity, when the South was faced with the potential loss of their own freedom to use and abuse their African slaves, they mounted a narrative that the African slave wasn’t deserving of the same rights as a human because, they determined, African slaves were sub-human or animals. It was this gross ignorance that would cost them their pride, but did little to eliminate their prejudice. It even caused a Civil War to a Presidential enactment of emancipation from slavery. Sadly, the stain of slavery within social stratification remains indelible, despite many who find it repulsive and unjust or unjustified.

Power, religion, and birth determined a Caste system that include elements of a Class system, but differ from Slavery. Caste was not based on immigration, as a spoil of war or race. Instead, privileges vs. station in life, (and for life) was pre-determined and based entirely upon to whom one was born—powerful or purposeful endowed privileges and pauper or polluter imposed sanctions. Either end of the caste spectrum is occupationally organized, socially accepted and abided in every aspect, from how one is educated to what skill-set is permitted to how one worships their respective faith in ceremonial rituals. The caste’s system employs the disturbing element of slavery, as explained in the story of the 8-year-old girl having been “bonded”—indentured—for a debt her parent’s owed, apportioned one meal a day to make the repayment of the debt punitive, cruel, and an affront to her innocence and dignity.

Social class employs elements of slavery and caste, but in a much more subtle and palatable sense, but it by no means is without a dark underbelly. Even a snake is recognized for its flexibility and most people fear its unpredictability. Such is the case of a Class-based structure. The low-class is poor and dependent on the very government that relies upon them remaining poor to establish their purpose and a base to remain in power. The low-class have options, but many obstacles and few opportunities are afforded or applied. When someone does “break the bonds”, it is seen as remarkable. Why is that? Well, by not limiting exposure to quality education, unprocessed foods or promoting unhealthy habit-forming products, allowing crime to fester and entire neighborhoods to fall into disrepair, it is quite remarkable and should be celebrated. In most cases it is, but even among their family members and community, somehow breaking free and becoming successful can be viewed as forgetting where one comes from or out-caste-ed.

A middle-class person truly is a middle. Middle in everything from opportunities, income, product availability, affect, education—you name it. What sets them apart from the classes is they are between and choice. They have a choice to remain middle, drop to low or rise high above even their own expectations. That’s not to say they would always be welcome or denied access. Only that, no matter what, they will conditionally respond to everything from a middle vantage point.  Middle class may be ho-hum, but for a low-class person it can be great relief or a high-class person’s greatest fear. One thing middle is, it’s consistent dependence on the economy, employment rate, religious freedoms, political agenda, etc.

Ah, yes, the upper-class. Of all the classes, this is the one that has traditionally set the “caste”-ing stage and can continue to afford to enslave many without much social repercussion. That’s not to say they don’t endure social ridicule, but with the low and middle classes essentially dependent upon or striving toward achieving the monetary bliss, privileged life-style or power afforded to the upper-class, the low and middle classes glorify the upper-class. The upper-class adoration is as subtle as it is extreme—and they, like the masters of slaves will hold hostage the dignity of the dreamer as well as the downtrodden without discrepancy, the Royals will reinforce their elevated status through Holy eminence, the politically powerful insulate through legislation—all will erect barriers to preserve their position. The most glaringly internal caste and class system for the upper-class is between the heirloom apparent and the nouveau riche. What sets this apart is the reception upon arrival (birth, success/fame, or winning the lottery) or the existence of a net (soft landing or epic crash) at the end of a fall from grace.

In the end, what sets us apart makes no difference from what makes us the same—we are all human. How we treat one another or tolerate how others treat us and those among us is what we all must one day answer to a much higher and far more graceful power. It takes nothing away from us to be accepting and compassionate, yet somehow, someone in history applied a value-system to human dignity.

Helpful links:

Worth watching or (re)reading: Animal Farm Movie

A brief summary for the curious or learning: What Is Social Stratification?

Thank you for reading! Please like and feedback is always welcome/encouraged.

Copyright 2020/M. Jane Letty